Amid Pandemic, LA Latino Communities Face Stark Increases In Homelessness
L.A. County’s latest official count of its unhoused population shows homelessness rising among Latino communities at a much faster pace than in other groups.
Of the more than 69,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in L.A. County, about 29,000 identify as Latino. The prevalence of unhoused Angelenos identifying as Latino has grown by 26% since 2020.
That outpaces increases in the unhoused population across the county, which grew by 4% over the last two years, according to results released Thursday from the region’s 2022 homeless count.
“When COVID-19 hit, we saw that it had a really big disproportionate impact on communities of color, and that the Latino community was particularly hard hit,” said UCLA researcher Melissa Chinchilla, who has studied Latino homelessness in L.A.
Crowded Housing And Public-Facing Jobs
Latinos working in public-facing sectors like food service and hospitality saw record unemployment during the pandemic. Many were already living on the edge of homelessness. They often had little savings. And in many cases they were living in severely overcrowded housing.
Cramped apartments became a health hazard during the pandemic. And researchers believe that some Latinos may have lost their housing as households downsized and practices like subletting a bedroom or couch-surfing turned into infection risks.
“We don't know definitively why Latino homelessness has gone up even faster than it had before,” said USC Homelessness Policy Research Institute director Gary Painter. “With COVID-19, you might have seen more Latinos moving into their cars to reduce exposure to other family members and friends.”
Excluded From Pandemic Safety Net Programs
Local officials credit new pandemic safety net programs with preventing many Angelenos from becoming unhoused during the pandemic. Billions of dollars in rent relief and boosted unemployment benefits likely kept people in their homes who would’ve otherwise been evicted.
But Latinos faced unique barriers in accessing these relief programs. In some cases, they were flat-out barred from getting the aid other groups received.
Language barriers and internet access problems were frequent issues for Latinos trying to apply for California’s rent relief program.
That program spent more than $5 billion paying landlords to clear the debts of tenants economically harmed by the pandemic. A recent UCLA study found that Latinos were about half as likely as white Californians to have applied for and to have received rent relief.
“Fewer Latino households got rental assistance,” said Public Counsel attorney Faizah Malik. Because of tech and language barriers, she said, “People were being denied, or were marked non-responsive.”
One of the biggest fiscal stimulus programs during the pandemic — federal unemployment benefits that boosted payments to jobless Americans by $600 per week — was off-limits to some Latinos. Immigrants without U.S. work authorization could not collect unemployment.
UCLA’s Melissa Chinchilla said, “Not having access to some of those extra benefits that were coming down during COVID-19 … definitely meant that a lot of folks in the Latino community here in Los Angeles might not have had access to resources that may have helped them maintain their housing.”
Latino Homelessness Becomes More Visible
The rapid growth in Latinos experiencing homelessness took place at the same time rates were dropping for many other groups. The proportion of unhoused Angelenos identifying as white declined by 16%, and by 23% among those identifying as Asian.
Homelessness rates fell by 9% among those identifying as Black. But Black Angelenos are still vastly overrepresented among L.A.’s unhoused population. Black people make up about 9% of L.A. County’s overall population, but 30% of the region’s unhoused population.
By contrast, Latinos make up about 49% of L.A. County, and they now account for nearly 45% of its unhoused population. The latest numbers differ sharply from a decade ago, when Latinos were significantly underrepresented among the unhoused.
“For a long time, when we talked about Latino homelessness, it was under this assumption of what's been referred to as a ‘Latino paradox,’” Chinchilla said. “Which is basically that Latinos experience significant rates of poverty, similar to other communities of color, but are less likely to experience homelessness.”
Chinchilla said that paradox was often explained by pointing to strong social and family ties that prevented Latinos from ending up on the streets or in shelters. But now, she said, the “hidden homeless” who have long existed in the Latino community — people couch-surfing or living out of sight in abandoned buildings and riverbeds — are becoming more visible.
“Latino homelessness has always been a problem,” Chinchilla said. “This moment of crisis has really pushed a lot of people over that tipping point, where they are now experiencing street homelessness, and they are now entering the formal homeless system.”